“I’m worried about a group of white people thinking very hard about their ancestors and what the slave trade meant to them.

If we do this in isolation, I think there’s a danger that we end up giving ourselves permission to move on because we’ve decided that we’ve dealt with it and feel better about it, rather than dealing with the consequences, the living consequences today.”

— From Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North

Update: I was executive director of the Tracing Center from 2011-2015, when I became a full-time parent. During that time, I wrote most of my blog posts at the Tracing Center’s web site. There, you can find my latest writings, as well as information about our programs and activities for the general public, and for the public history community—including our book, Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).

This blog is devoted to exploring the history and legacy of the slave trade and slavery in the United States.

This is a subject which, despite its tremendous significance for our past and our present, remains largely unknown to the general public. Slavery and the slave trade were pervasive institutions in the early United States, and were central to the economies of both north and south. As a result, the economic and social impact of slavery has reverberated across the centuries, profoundly shaping contemporary society. Because many Americans remain unaware of the full extent of this history, they cannot properly appreciate the impact of this history and its legacy on racial justice and inequality today.

My fifth-great grandfather, James D’Wolf of Bristol, Rhode Island, was a wealthy merchant who served as the speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives and as a U.S. senator. On his death in 1837, he was reported to be the second-richest man in the country.

He was also a slave trader. In fact, he was the patriarch of the most successful slave-trading family in U.S. history.

I am one of ten descendants of the slave-trading D’Wolf family who have retraced the steps of our ancestors by following the historic route of the “triangle trade” from Bristol, R.I. to the west coast of Africa and to the ruins of slave plantations in Cuba. This journey is chronicled in the documentary film Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North and in Tom DeWolf’s memoir, Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History.

This blog will frequently cover developments relating to the film, the book, and to our efforts to publicize this history and its legacy through screenings, dialogues, and presentations in high schools, universities, churches, community groups, and corporate diversity training programs.

For more about me, please see my Google Profile.

6 Responses to “About this blog”

  1. Steven says:

    I just saw "Traces of the Trade" on PBS. As an American of African descent, I want you to know you and the family participants' struggle to come to grips with slavery and its aftermath, moved me to tears. Your honestly and moral courage to take a frank look at your family's history and to then understand and admit its impact on how De Wolfes were able to subsequently derive benefit; was remarkable. White Americans have a great deal of denial to work through. I am buying "Inheriting the Trade" tomorrow.
    Best wishes to you and your extended family.

  2. HNIC says:

    Well you have already gone down the wrong road with your exploring "race". Here's a news flash, their is no "race" other than the human race. The word race and racism are made up false words with NO scientific meaning. The words did not appear in the English lexicon until the 1930's when lunatic separatists wanted to divide humans into categories so as to present themselves as superior, i.e the NAZI Party of America and it's ilk.

    You are apparently suffering from a sickness called "White Guilt" foisted upon you by the media brainwashing of left wing nut bags and other assorted socialist morons. Your writings reflect the disingenuous ideology of a failed socialist agenda.

    I have no guilt over what was done to people who have been dead for 200 years. I have no ties to slavery as is true with 99% of the American public both white and black. Slave owners where a very small group of wealthy land owners, very small. The rest of the population where as equally exploited by these same land owners as the Negros imported from Africa. Everyone seems to forget that slavery was NOT just for Africans, anyone could be inducted into slavery/servitude if they where not rich land owners or of the wealthy class.

    Quit being an apologist for the "whitey" haters and their ignorant ilk!

  3. James says:

    Thanks for offering your thoughts, HNIC.

    I couldn't agree more that "race" has no scientific meaning whatsoever. Race is merely a shared belief that certain physical or ancestral traits have significance.

    However, in the past, our society chose to give the concept of race a great deal of significance. The result is that people were horribly mistreated, and the effects of that mistreatment are still with us today. As long as there are concrete, material consequences of that mistreatment, our society's mistaken belief in race lives on. It would be futile to believe that by granting race no further meaning, we could also wipe out those effects.

    (The word "race," incidentally, did not come into existence in the 1930s. The word has been used in English to refer to people of common ancestry since the 16th century, and the use of the word to divide people into different categories, with some being inferior, has existed since at least the height of U.S. slavery.)

    You claim that I'm suffering from "white guilt," and yet I say that I feel no guilt over race. Can you explain why you believe I suffer from "white guilt"?

    As for a socialist agenda, anyone who reads my blog can easily see that I share none of the ideological tenets of socialism.

    You are gravely mistaken when you claim that you have no ties to slavery. No one alive today is responsible for slavery in the U.S. Yet we are all tied to that institution, because we all share in the benefits of it.

    You might also be interested to know that slavery was not limited to "a very small group of wealthy land owners." In fact, slave owning was more widespread than that.

    Consider Barack Obama's ancestors, for instance: two of them each owned just two slaves. They were certainly not wealthy land owners, and they were fairly typical. During slavery, many middle-class Americans owned one or two slaves. In the north, where large plantations were rare, ordinary family farmers would often own one, two, or even three slaves.

    While many Americans were exploited in one way or another, few were exploited to the extent that African-descended slaves were. In addition, most (if not all) Americans alive during slavery benefited from that institution. You can read more elsewhere on this blog, but in a nutshell, slavery and the slave trade were substantial engines of the early American economy. Their economic effects were felt everywhere, in jobs, investments, and in the prices of the most mundane consumer goods (such as sugar and clothing).

  4. HNIC says:

    SO I guess the Merriam-Webster dictionary is a liar according to you:


    One entry found.

    Main Entry:

    rac·ism Listen to the pronunciation of racism


    ?r?-?si-z?m also -?shi-

    Function: noun

    Date: 1933

    1 : a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race 2 : racial prejudice or discrimination

    — rac·ist Listen to the pronunciation of racist -sist also -shist noun or adjective

  5. James says:

    HNIC, that's the word "racist."

    You used two words, the first of which was "race," and that's the one I specifically commented on.

    If you'll check "race" in the same dictionary, you'll find that it says it originated in 1580.

  6. Tracing Center » Racial myth and miscegenation on “The Simpsons” says:

    […] slavery has taken up much of my time and energy over the last decade. Being a direct descendant of the leading slave trader in U.S. history, I think I can also relate to Lisa’s worry that her family tree sometimes seems dominated by […]

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